The night the cattle arrived – part 1

Written by Dr. Renee Orange, Veterinarian, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Samoa.

There’s one night in 2015 that is a night which has been forever etched in my mind. It was the night our brand-spanking new Droughtmaster cattle and Dorper sheep arrived from Australia, however, things did not go completely according to plan. This is not unusual in Samoa, as true to island fashion, plot twists have become so normal that I am now content to merely note such occurrences down and have a good laugh at it later, once the situation has been sorted.

I shall have to give a bit of background first, so you understand just how valuable these animals were. First, the stark facts; through an aid program, the Samoan Government, via the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), had purchased at great cost 13 purebred Droughtmaster bulls, and 33 in-calf purebred Droughtmaster heifers. The rationale – the last new blood was imported in 2004. These animals had been quickly distributed, but no records kept of who they went to and what happened to their progeny. The value of cattle as ceremonial gifts resulting in high slaughter rates made the team suspect that the benefits of this new blood had been lost in the ensuing years. In addition, the Government had been pushing to improve import substitution. Most of our beef is imported and as part of the national development strategy, MAF was making a concerted effort to increase both the quantity and quality of local beef supply. So, enter the Droughtmaster – hardy and of good meat quality. Needless to say, after 3 years of planning, these animals were highly anticipated.

They were to be flown in on a specially chartered Qantas flight. My colleague and I actually met the representatives from Qantas a few days before the flight. They were extremely reassuring. I was pretty relaxed myself, as since I had only been working for the Ministry for a year, I had not had too much to do with the details and arrangments. My colleague, however, had organised pretty much everything from the start and so was understandably not as easily reassured.

The plan was this: the animals were to arrive at our international airport at Faleolo, about an hour away from the main township of Apia, and 2 hours away from the Government station where they were to be quarantined and then eventually stay. Once the plane was on the ground, the airport authorities had given us about 3 hours to unload the animals and clear the tarmac, as they had passenger flights arriving later that evening. The crates held about 4-5 heifers each, but the bulls were separate. They were unloaded using a mechanised lift from the aeroplane onto to trolleys on the tarmac. They were then to be pulled to the side, away from the plane, to be loaded from the trolleys onto open deck container trucks by forklift, with the doors facing towards the back of the truck to allow for easy unloading at the farm.

Our team thought hard about everything that could possibly go wrong and we loaded our truck that afternoon with sedatives, our tranquilizer guns, the captive bolt and our 9m casting rope, plus various other implements we always carry to our veterinary cases. We anticipated the highest risk of animals escaping to be at the cattle station during the transfer from crate to stock truck. We had to unload onto the stock truck because the road to the farm was unsuitable for the container trucks to drive on. They cattle were to be loaded from the crate to the stock truck at a large clearing at the start of the track, and would then be driven to the stockyard and unloaded onto solid ground there. It is at this point we envisioned a few animals perhaps attempting to “shoot the gap” and try to get out while entering the stock truck.

How wrong we were.

The night arrived – everyone, included the highest levels of management in the Ministry, was there. The flight landed on time. Our vet team was initially denied entry onto the tarmac, but security laxed in the excitement and we were allowed on to help monitor the animals during the unloading/loading process. We had 3 consultants at the time from Australia, one who was part of the project, the other 2 were a sheep and a beef consultant respectively who were brought over especially to help with this shipment of animals. After some minor corrections regarding the loading of the crates onto the container trucks, the freight staff and our MAF staff got into a good rhythm – the sheep were loaded first, and they looked well and bright in their crate. Then the cattle. Things were going smoothly, paperwork was being attended to. I was instructed to get ready to travel with the sheep to their quarantine station, which was at our headquarters an hour and a half away from the airport.

I therefore made my way to the container trucks in the carpark that had the sheep crates, and started gathering other colleagues who were to travel with me and locating our driver.

At that moment, as one of my colleagues put it – the manure hit the windmill.

I was startled out of my calmness by one of our consultants running up to me from the tarmac shouting, “get the tranq gun! Get the tranq gun! The cattle are on the runway!!”. No joke, I almost emptied my bowels. I immediately ran to our vet truck, jumped in the tray with the guns and the drugs and yelled to the driver to start driving to the tarmac. I then shakily began prepping the darts, trying to fill them with xylazine, pumping them with air and then loading the tranq gun. Unfortunately, the adrenaline ripping through my veins plus the bumpy ride made it almost impossible to fill them properly. I’m just lucky I didn’t actually inject myself on the way. Visions of cattle standing on the runway in the dark assailed me – I wondered how the heck were we going to dart them and would we have to engage in a mad chase down the runway with airplanes trying to land or takeoff.

Well, it was a 2 minute drive to the loading area, and the sight that greeted me was both a relief and a shock. The cattle thankfully were not standing, or running, free on the runway. I did not in fact need to shoot anything. However, they were at risk of being injured.

One of crates holding 5 heifers had actually broken while being transferred by forklift from the trolley to the container truck. It was about 4 feet off the ground when the floor of the crate had collapsed and the heifers had fallen through the hole in the wood. 4 of the heifers were the right way up with their legs sticking through the floor.  All of them were incredibly calm, which was more than I can say for me and my colleague – and everyone else.

The forklift operator decided he wanted to try lifting the crate higher. This course of action was quickly put an end to by prolonged yelling. I remember everything being so noisy that night – the planes engines, people shouting. Anyway, the next few moments were a bit of a blur, but we all settled on starting by sedating all the animals in that crate so they would not struggle and further injure themselves. I remember drawing up the xylazine into syringes so we could sedate the animals between the slates of the crate. My hand was shaking like a leaf in a cyclone – it took a couple of tries to get the needle in the bottle. The consultant on the ground looked at me and said, “do you want me to do that?” However I managed to draw the sedative up ok. After 10 minutes, the cattle were appropriately sedated and we proceeded with removing the crate from around the animals. In an hour, we had 5 heifers snoring on the tarmac. The rest of the cattle were safely loaded on the trucks in their crates.

The next question was, how to get these 400kg sleeping giants into a truck?

Tune in tomorrow for part 2!